Night Fall, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2004, 692 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61662-1

Looking over my notes about Nelson DeMille’s fiction, I keep seeing a common theme: DeMille is not just a reliable thriller writer, but he often manages to find success where other lesser writers would flounder. His books are regularly longer than they ought to be, deal with themes that shouldn’t be interesting, use the same repertory of characters from one work to another –and yet DeMille is one of the surest values in the thriller market, churning out hit after hit.

With Night Fall, he comes perilously close to failing –although I haven’t yet made up my mind about it, and I don’t expect to for a long while yet.

The first and most important difference between Night Fall and the rest of DeMille’s oeuvre is that he sets it against a very specific time period: The action begins on July 17, 2001, five years after the TWA Flight 800 explosion. Returning protagonist John Corey (Plum Island, The Lion’s Game) heads out to a memorial celebration in company of his wife, but she’s got a complete show-and-tell in mind. By the end of the day, Corey has determined that there’s something rotten about the way the TWA investigation was wrapped up, and decides to investigate further. Warnings from superiors quickly come and are discarded at some peril.

The first question that readers should ask is why DeMille would want to pick Corey as a protagonist and very specifically why we would want to set a novel in 2001. The answer, of course, is obvious… and so the book takes on a very special quality of impending doom, a quality that becomes more and more obvious as the characters make plans that bring them to That Place on That Day.

As suggested above, Night Fall isn’t an unqualified success. On one level, it certainly places the novel on a different register. DeMille knows that by his specific story choices, he can bring the reader to do most of the emotional heavy lifting of the novel. We know what’s coming and the character doesn’t (though the author certainly does, as demonstrated by the number of references that are obvious now but weren’t then.) and that is the very definition of suspense and dramatic irony. The novel rushes along to its inevitable conclusion even as the reader hope against all other evidence that something will happen to prevent the inevitable.

But the very same factors that given strength to Night Fall also contribute to the impression that DeMille is blindly cheating his readers. Think back to the reasons why DeMille, after nearly a dozen novels loosely tied to contemporary times in general, would specifically tie himself to a specific time period. Why show a protagonist uncovering a conspiracy three years before the publication date of the book, if we know perfectly well (reading the morning newspaper) that the conspiracy is not going to be exposed in time for 2004? As the novel started building steam toward an ending and the days were counting down to That Day, I found myself contemplating the upcoming crash and muttering darkly that DeMille really shouldn’t go there nor do that.

But he does, and arguably negates the preceding investigation, burning up 600 pages in smoke because Something Else happens that, of course, Changes Everything. Did he lock himself in a box and only thought of burning up the box because nothing else worked? I can’t say. I can only testify that Night Fall left me unsatisfied, which is probably a first in the entire DeMille oeuvre. Worse yet is the feeling that this is completely deliberate: DeMille knew what he was doing, and it falls to the reader to decide whether it worked or not.

If I’ve spent so much time discussing the ending, it’s because everything else is up to DeMille’s standards: The crystal-clear prose, the engaging characters, the sardonic narration, the beautiful integration of exposition… it’s all there, slickly developed. There are a missteps or two, like the unlikely reappearance of a character for pure pummelling purposes, but the rest is DeMille solid gold.

It’s just the ending that stick out like an undigested bone, and it’s not inconsequential because it hangs over the book like an albatross. The date tells you to expect it and dramatic theory suggests that it’s going to be pretty tragic. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that DeMille has chosen the easy lazy way out.

In this light, I’m really curious to see if DeMille’s next book, Wild Fire, will acknowledge or even confront some of those issues. It’s said to feature the same characters in (once again) a free-flowing contemporary setting: we’ll see if Night Fall will have any lasting impact on them, or if the big Reset button will be pressed.

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